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When travelers brave the ‘tough sells,’ it’s possible everyone wins

MOHAMED HOSSAM/EPA/Shutterstock

In Egypt, the pyramids of Giza.

By Jon Marcus Globe correspondent 

Lara Eurdolian was only weeks away from a long-planned vacation to Mexico City when a major earthquake struck there in September.

The Belmont-born world traveler considered canceling her trip, or heading to Mexico anyway and volunteering to help in some way.

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“We had a lot of hesitation,” Eurdolian said. “We didn’t feel right about going on tours and things when people there were having a hard time.”

But after seeing that Mexican tourism agencies had quickly whipped up the slogan “Tourism Helps Mexico,” she decided that the best thing to do was go.

“What they needed was money from tourism,” said Eurdolian, who writes a fashion, beauty, and travel blog. “I’m just glad we went ahead. The city was totally vibrant. People were very gracious, very nice.”

At a time of natural disasters and political turmoil, an increasing number of tourism-dependent destinations have become tough sells. But travelers and industry representatives say this makes many of them cheaper and less crowded, with populations more warmly welcoming to visitors and the business they bring.

They’re also even more interesting than usual.

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“Yes, tourism has gone down — mass tourism” — since the turbulent Arab Spring, said Manal Kelig, cofounder of Gateway to Egypt and executive director for the Middle East and North Africa of the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

“But we’re seeing an increase in interest from different types of travelers who want to come and learn about these destinations now. They are hungry for more modern than ancient history.”

Still, nervousness over such things as tensions on the Korean Peninsula has industry providers scrambling. When a new five-star hotel opened in Seoul during a bout of North Korean sabre-rattling, it had to lower prices, said Sung Kim, marketing manager at the Korea Tourism Organization, who finds herself calming American travelers every time the Korean situation flares up.

One major tour operator “is so grateful for people who don’t cancel,” Sung said. “They get discounts and special treatment.”

The most effective way to counteract declines is to be honest about realities and not just try to gloss them over, said Milton Segarra, who as CEO of Meet Puerto Rico has one of the hardest jobs in travel: luring meetings, conventions, and trade shows back to that storm-battered island.

Even before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rican tourism was only slowly recovering from fears of Zika-infected mosquitoes and huge government debt.

“The only way we’ve been able to jump-start the demand for travel to Puerto Rico is total transparency,” Segarra said. “The destinations that will prevail, the destinations that will grow, will be the ones prepared to deal with the negative perceptions.”

Some hard-sell destinations aren’t rebounding from drop-offs in tourism. They’re trying to attract it in the first place.

Jehiel Boner visited Jordan, for example, as digital community manager at the cycling tour company Tripsite, which has added an itinerary there.

“What we like to do is to go first,” said Boner. “So when people ask us, for example, what is Macedonia like, we can actually be an advocate for the region. These are undiscovered places, and in that sense you may be getting a bargain, but you also get an unadulterated look.”

Places like Jordan — which is newly pushing tourism — “although they have some rowdy neighbors, are very peaceful,” he said. “The people were so genuine, and not in the way you might find someplace in Europe that’s more touristy. They were trying to meet you and offer their homes to you. The hospitality was over the top but it never felt forced.”

A broad perception of a lack of hospitality is putting one popular destination in the unfamiliar position of having to reassure prospective international visitors, too: the United States, where official US Department of Commerce figures show that tourism fell by more than 4 percent at the beginning of this year, when the Trump administration travel ban was first proposed. Other sources suggest the drop is much, much greater, and the US Travel Association says there are “mounting signs [of] a broad chilling effect on demand for international travel to the United States.”

Hundreds of worried tourism-industry workers in May stood under the approach to Los Angeles International Airport holding signs that spelled out “Welcome” in Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese.

Kim and her colleagues have been “very pleasantly surprised” that travel to South Korea has not declined, she said. It’s eked up 1.5 percent so far this year over the same period last year.

“We’re very thankful for this,” Kim said. “Hopefully it shows that the American travelers are more resilient. Not to sound like it’s all rainbows, but the message I’m hearing from our tour operators is that their clients know it’s dangerous anywhere in the world and if they’re going to go, they’re going to go.”

That’s how Eurdolian felt about visiting Mexico City after the earthquake, she said. “It’s not like we were going to a war zone,” she said. “We’ve been to places that are more intimidating.” Now a New Yorker who is not a fan of beach vacations — “you can relax at home,” she said — Eurdolian said that, for her, travel “is about seeing different things, all over the world.”

Like-minded tourists not only experience that world themselves, said Kelig, they help sustain it.

“They should know they do contribute to the economy by helping people to continue with their businesses,” she said. “A lot of these small businesses could not survive” without them.

Meanwhile, she said, travelers who take up the tough sells get “the unscripted experience. There will be different points of view. There will be discussions. You’ll get more than one opinion.”

Said Kelig: “You have to be fully on board, saying, ‘I want to go to this destination. I know there’s a lot to learn there. I want to go. It’s my adventure.’ ”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.